On domestic matters, many have called for alcohol to be banned or sold only in Christian neighborhoods. Islamic banks that abstain from interest payments are another common demand, as is gender segregation and the curtailment of women’s and minority rights.
‘Do not be bait’
The most basic choice Salafists face is whether to work within or outside the new order.
Salafist influence in Libya is accentuated by the proliferation of weapons held by hundreds of independent militias that operate beyond the control of the new central government. While not all are religiously motivated, groups such as Ansar al-Sharia have used thinly veiled threats of force to advance their agendas.
“Sharia must be the only reference for the constitution,” said Hani al-Mansouri, a spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia. “We keep watch and we put pressure on the government.”
The group has gone underground since its barracks in Benghazi were overrun last month by Libyans demanding greater government control of the militias. But before it did, Ansar helped stage a number of pro-sharia protests, as well as a military parade in June that many residents described as intimidating.
Following attacks on U.S. missions in Benghazi, Tunis and Cairo last month, Libyan President Mohammed Magarief, a moderate Islamist, called for the immediate disbandment of militias not allied with the government. Along with leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, he condemned the anti-American violence. But the region’s governments have also been criticized for being soft on Salafists.
“They don’t want to set off a civil war,” said Fawzi Wanis al-Gaddafi, who heads Benghazi’s Supreme Security Committee, a loose federation of government-backed militias in the city.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bowed to the popularity of right-wing sentiment in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, calling for limits to freedom of expression following the uproar over an anti-Islam video that appeared on YouTube.
In Tunisia, where secular dictators firmly enforced — concocted, some scholars say — a mild brand of Islam, the elected government has sought to bring Salafists into the fold. Led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the government has endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw blasphemy and has legalized a handful of Salafist parties, including one headed by a former militant who has now disavowed violence.
Few Salafists seem to have bought in. Instead, the most prominent Salafist organization is the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia, which analysts say is only loosely connected to its Libyan counterpart. Though it had been considered nonviolent, it was accused of instigating the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last month, and Tunisian security forces have arrested dozens of its members. Authorities say they are pursuing its leader.